A Love Letter at Death

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A Love Letter at Death
Impact of parent communication with sons and daughters during the crucial end of life experience.

A mother I know well, who abused her daughter emotionally and physically, who was never able to find the strength within to see or understand the harm she inflicted, died on her daughter's 25th birthday. In therapy, this young woman remembered that there were many times when her mother did her best to love her in a better way than she had been loved. She saw that her mother loved her as fully as she was able, and was able to forgive her. And she began to see that her mother's death on her birthday -- as painful as this was -- was her way to express her connection, as well as her sorrow that she had inflicted such pain.

Another example of this complex life event involved a client with a mother who was exceedingly overprotective and had enormous difficulty with the "letting go" process that all parents must eventually face. What my client described as his mother's "strangle hold, which feels like some kind of noose around my neck," kept him in a constant state of guilt when a love or work situation took time away from his mom. When his mother developed a virulent form of pancreatic cancer, she took her son's hand and apologized for her selfishness, asking for his forgiveness. She died two weeks later, her son at her side. It was his 32nd birthday.

Again and again, in situations like these (which are more common than most realize), a parent, sibling or other relative -- usually one full of rage, as well as envy and jealousy and whose animosity has made it necessary for my client to seek treatment in the first place -- often says something like: "Now you can never again have a happy birthday." Or, "How she must have hated you." Or, "What a curse you now will always have."

But I can tell clients and friends something very different. There is often a message in death that one has been unable to express in life.

When the moment of death comes on the birthday of a daughter or son, all of my clinical experience points to this life event as a mother's expression of love, often tinged with sorrow. Death at this time is her wish to share one more milestone -- her way of expressing that, even when her mistakes have been grave ones, her love is eternal.


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This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.
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SaraKay Smullens

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I look forward to your thoughts and sharing with you.

To be continued,

SaraKay Smullens, MSW, BCD, LCSW, ACSW, CFLE, CGP 

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Credentials: BCD, MSW
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